Business admin guru earns his IT stripes

Sitting in his office on the 35th floor of a downtown Toronto skyscraper, Don Rice, 31, recalls his first encounter with a computer.

“I can remember going to my uncle’s house – he worked for IBM. He had an Apple computer with a disk drive, and you could play Pong on it. I was about eight or nine years old at the time,” said Rice, financial information systems manager for Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) LLP, a law firm with offices across Canada.

A graduate of the Bachelor of Business Administration program at Waterloo, Ont.-based Wilfrid Laurier University with a major in accounting and finance, Rice said IT was never his main focus throughout his education. “Back in 1990 . . . IT wasn’t what it is today. It made sense for me to be on the financial side,” he explained.

But the IT discipline, he said, has changed so much now that people from all walks of life – including himself – have jumped onboard. In fact, it’s only recently that Rice has started working toward his Information Systems Management certificate at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “Not everyone has the education – you’re kind of put into the job and that’s where the learning comes from.”

Rice’s first job was in 1995 as a cost analyst for Toronto-based cheque producing company Davis + Henderson (D+H), where he first started using SQL and reporting tools. Then D+H came upon a new concept: a data centre. “They pulled me into (that project) because I had a reporting background,” he explained.

Next, Rice was put to work on an OLAP tools demo that was used in a major sales presentation. “That was the highlight of my career,” he said, adding that he remembers being pulled aside by the president and CEO who had good things to say about the demo. “Getting that feedback was really awesome . . . when you’re a junior programmer.”

Today, he still looks back nostalgically on his programming days. “It’s like you’re creating your own little Frankenstein – the user wants something, and you put all the pieces together. There is nothing more exciting than getting stuck, not being able to figure out what’s going on and then suddenly finding the missing piece.”

The only “black cloud” in Rice’s career would be his all too brief stint at Oracle Corp., which he joined in October of 1998 as a consultant implementing the vendor’s Express OLAP product for clients. By March of 1999, he was out of a job because “clients were focusing on Y2K instead of business intelligence tools.” However, there are no regrets, he said. “It was a great experience – it was fun to work there and I learned a lot.”

After returning to D+H on contract, in May of 1999 he joined BLG, which at the time only had a Toronto office. His first role was as a developer charged with the task of implementing CMS, practice management system that keeps track of lawyers’ time, billing and case progress.

Shortly after the implementation, BLG announced that it was merging with four other firms, and Rice’s team started planning how they would bring the new Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver offices under the same system. After the integration was completed in 2002, BLG needed a national financial IS manager to take care of the day-to-day operations of CMS – and Rice got promoted.

The transition from staff to management was a bit tough. “The mindset is different – before, you’re working with friends and you joke around. Then it changes to ‘Don’s now the manager so I have to be careful what I say around him,'” said Rice, who now reports to both the company CFO and national director of IT.

Nonetheless, he said he loves working at BLG. Rice’s team consists of eight other people who specialize in everything from networking to accounting. “(The staff) . . . love to use technology to get the boss. Once they got a hold of this horrible looking picture of me after being drenched with rain at a summer party – one guy scanned it and put it on everyone’s computer as their background,” he chuckled. “Really, it’s like a big happy family; we just have a good time.”

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